Batman is the greatest superhero. Sure, there are some other contenders. Spiderman’s mixture of everyman foibles and web slinging escapism absolutely put him in the running. Wolverine’s blue collar attitude also has his promoters. And we might even throw a nod to Superman because he started this whole crazy mess to begin with. But, for my money, Batman is still tops.
Batman has reigned as the greatest superhero thanks to two important elements: 1) the introduction of a “why” and 2) his malleability. Batman was the first superhero in the golden age to explain why he decides to dress up and fight crime. Where other superheroes spent entire issues explaining the origins of their powers, Batman didn’t have powers to begin with, so Bill Finger and Bob Kane decided to give him a motivation. Michael Chabon explains the importance of the question “Why” in his classic novel about young Jewish comic book writers, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay:
“The question is why.”
“The question is why.”
“Why,” Joe repeated.
“Why is he doing it?”
“Dressing up like a monkey or an ice cube or a can of fucking corn.”
“To fight the crime, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, to fight crime. To fight evil. But that’s all any of these guys are doing. That’s as far as they ever go. They just…you know, it’s the right thing to do, so they do it. How interesting is that?”
“Only Batman, you know…see, yeah, that’s good. That’s what makes Batman good, and not dull at all, even though he’s just a guy who dresses up like a bat and beats people up.”
“What is the reason for Batman? The why?”
“His parents were killed, see? In cold blood. Right in front of his eyes, when he was a kid. By a robber.” (94-95)
Finger and Kane were the first people who realized that a comic book character could have an interior life. Batman is the first psychologically conflicted superhero.
But being the first doesn’t also make you the best seventy years later. Employing a “why” has been put into practice for plenty of superheroes since Batman, and has lead to Spiderman’s wonderful mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Batman is also the greatest superhero because he is so malleable. So long as a handful of necessary elements are put into place, an artist can make Batman his own in a manner that is unheard of for other superheroes. There is no Batman; there are merely a bunch of Batmen. Because Batman’s story may be told and retold with variation again and again, he never becomes stale. And different versions, sometimes even when they conflict in their retelling or ideological point of view, seem perfectly legitimate. It doesn’t break the mythology if the killer of the Waynes escapes justice or if that killer, Joe Chill, is later caught by the police. Both are acceptable retellings that may transform, ever so slightly, the meaning of Batman’s origin, but, ultimately, they don’t break the Bat.
So why am I talking about Batman? Well, as many of you know, there happens to be a new Batman movie coming out this summer. It’s a little, independent piece called The Dark Knight Rises. (It seems as if everything rises in movies these days: machines, apes, Cobra). Well, in the next few months I want to take a look at the two films that lead up to the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I remember enjoying Nolan’s work on Batman, although I haven’t watched The Dark Knight since it was in theaters several years ago. I’m also a fan of Nolan’s work in general, to varying degrees. On the internet these days Nolan is either hailed as an artistic God and the true inheritor of the mantle of Stanley Kubrick (yes, there are people who think this), or he is decried as an overrated hack. Well, for most of us he is neither. He has made some great films and some uneven films (although he has yet to make a terrible film). I also don’t believe that his version of Batman is definitive. It is the creation of a singular artist, but it is also nothing more than a single perspective among many. In my views I will try to look at how Nolan transforms the Batman mythos to reflect Western anxieties in the decade following 9/11. But if my interpretation isn’t up to your liking, then all I can ask is, “Why so serious?”